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Visualized: A Global Risk Assessment of 2021 And Beyond

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Visualized: A Global Risk Assessment of 2021 And Beyond

Risk is all around us. After the events of 2020, it’s not surprising that the level and variety of risks we face have become more pronounced than ever.

Every year, the World Economic Forum analyzes the top risks in the world in its Global Risks Report. Risks were identified based on 800+ responses of surveyed leaders across various levels of expertise, organizations, and regional distribution.

Which risks are top of mind in 2021?

The World’s Top Risks by Likelihood and Impact

According to WEF’s risk assessment methodology, all the global risks in 2021 fall into the following broad categories:

  • 🔵 Economic
  • 🟢 Environmental
  • 🟠 Geopolitical
  • 🔴 Societal
  • 🟣 Technological

It goes without saying that infectious diseases have now become one of the top societal risks on both metrics of likelihood and impact.

That said, environmental risks continue to dominate the leaderboard, accounting for five of the top 10 risks by impact, especially when it comes to climate action failure.

Several countries are off-track in meeting emissions goals set by the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, while the pandemic has also delayed progress in the shift towards a carbon-neutral economy. Meanwhile, biodiversity loss is occurring at unprecedented rates.

RankTop Risks by LikelihoodTop Risks by Impact
#1🟢Extreme weather🔴Infectious diseases
#2🟢Climate action failure🟢Climate action failure
#3🟢Human environmental damage🟠Weapons of mass destruction
#4🔴Infectious diseases🟢Biodiversity loss
#5🟢Biodiversity loss🟢Natural resource crises
#6🟣Digital power concentration🟢Human environmental damage
#7🟣Digital inequality🔴Livelihood crises
#8🟠Interstate relations fracture🟢Extreme weather
#9🟣Cybersecurity failure🔵Debt crises
#10🔴Livelihood crises🟣IT Infrastructure breakdown

As for other risks, the prospect of weapons of mass destruction ranks in third place for potential impact. In the global arms race, a single misstep would trigger severe consequences on civil and political stability.

New Risks in 2021

While many of the risks included in the Global Risks Report 2021 are familiar to those who have read the editions of years past, there are a flurry of new entries to the list this year.

Here are some of the most interesting ones in the risk assessment, sorted by category:

Societal Risks

COVID-19 has resulted in a myriad of knock-on societal risks, from youth disillusionment and mental health deterioration to livelihood crises. The first two risks in particular go hand-in-hand, as “pandemials” (youth aged 15-24) are staring down a turbulent future. This generation is more likely to report high distress from disrupted educational and economic prospects.

At the same time, as countries prepare for widespread immunization against COVID-19, another related societal risk is the backlash against science. The WEF identifies vaccines and immunization as subjects susceptible to disinformation and denial of scientific evidence.

Economic Risks

As monetary stimulus was kicked into high gear to prop up markets and support many closed businesses and quarantined families, the economic outlook seems more fragile than ever. Debt-to-GDP ratios continue to rise across advanced economies—if GDP growth stagnates for too long, a potential debt crisis could see many businesses and major nations default on their debt.

With greater stress accumulating on a range of major industries such as travel and hospitality, the economy risks a build-up of “zombie” firms that drag down overall productivity. Despite this, market valuations and asset prices continue to rise, with equity markets rewarding investors betting on a swift recovery so far.

Technological Risks

Last but not least, COVID-19 has raised the alert on various technological risks. Despite the accelerated shift towards remote work and digitalization of entire industries, the reality is that digital inequality leaves those with lower digital literacy behind—worsening existing inequalities.

Big Tech is also bloating even further, growing its digital power concentration. The market share some companies hold in their respective sectors, such as Amazon in online retail, threatens to erode the agency of other players.

Assessing the Top 10 Risks On the Horizon

Back in mid-2020, the WEF attempted to quantify the biggest risks over an 18-month period, with a prolonged economic recession emerging on top.

In this report’s risk assessment, global risks are further classified by how soon their resulting threats are expected to occur. Weapons of mass destruction remain the top risk, though on a much longer scale of up to 10 years in the future.

RankRisk%Time Horizon
#1🟠Weapons of mass destruction62.7Long-term (5-10 years)
#2🔴Infectious diseases58Short-term risks (0-2 years)
#3🔴Livelihood crises55.1Short-term risks (0-2 years)
#4🔵Asset bubble burst53.3Medium-term risks (3-5 years)
#5🟣 IT infrastructure breakdown53.3Medium-term risks (3-5 years)
#6🔵Price instability52.9Medium-term risks (3-5 years)
#7🟢Extreme weather events52.7Short-term risks (0-2 years)
#8🔵Commodity shocks52.7Medium-term risks (3-5 years)
#9🔵Debt crises52.3Medium-term risks (3-5 years)
#10🟠State collapse51.8Long-term (5-10 years)

Through this perspective, COVID-19 (and its variants) remains high in the next two years as the world scrambles to return to normal.

It’s also clear that more economic risks are taking center stage, from an asset bubble burst to price instability that could have a profound effect over the next five years.

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Visualizing the Power Consumption of Bitcoin Mining

Bitcoin mining requires significant amounts of energy, but what does this consumption look like when compared to countries and companies?

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Visualizing the Power Consumption of Bitcoin Mining

Cryptocurrencies have been some of the most talked-about assets in recent months, with bitcoin and ether prices reaching record highs. These gains were driven by a flurry of announcements, including increased adoption by businesses and institutions.

Lesser known, however, is just how much electricity is required to power the Bitcoin network. To put this into perspective, we’ve used data from the University of Cambridge’s Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index (CBECI) to compare Bitcoin’s power consumption with a variety of countries and companies.

Why Does Bitcoin Mining Require So Much Power?

When people mine bitcoins, what they’re really doing is updating the ledger of Bitcoin transactions, also known as the blockchain. This requires them to solve numerical puzzles which have a 64-digit hexadecimal solution known as a hash.

Miners may be rewarded with bitcoins, but only if they arrive at the solution before others. It is for this reason that Bitcoin mining facilities—warehouses filled with computers—have been popping up around the world.

These facilities enable miners to scale up their hashrate, also known as the number of hashes produced each second. A higher hashrate requires greater amounts of electricity, and in some cases can even overload local infrastructure.

Putting Bitcoin’s Power Consumption Into Perspective

On March 18, 2021, the annual power consumption of the Bitcoin network was estimated to be 129 terawatt-hours (TWh). Here’s how this number compares to a selection of countries, companies, and more.

NamePopulation Annual Electricity Consumption (TWh)
China1,443M6,543
United States330.2M3,989
All of the world’s data centers-205
State of New York19.3M161
Bitcoin network -129 
Norway5.4M124
Bangladesh165.7M70
Google-12
Facebook-5
Walt Disney World Resort (Florida)-1

Note: A terawatt hour (TWh) is a measure of electricity that represents 1 trillion watts sustained for one hour.
Source: Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance, Science Mag, New York ISO, Forbes, Facebook, Reedy Creek Improvement District, Worldometer

If Bitcoin were a country, it would rank 29th out of a theoretical 196, narrowly exceeding Norway’s consumption of 124 TWh. When compared to larger countries like the U.S. (3,989 TWh) and China (6,543 TWh), the cryptocurrency’s energy consumption is relatively light.

For further comparison, the Bitcoin network consumes 1,708% more electricity than Google, but 39% less than all of the world’s data centers—together, these represent over 2 trillion gigabytes of storage.

Where Does This Energy Come From?

In a 2020 report by the University of Cambridge, researchers found that 76% of cryptominers rely on some degree of renewable energy to power their operations. There’s still room for improvement, though, as renewables account for just 39% of cryptomining’s total energy consumption.

Here’s how the share of cryptominers that use each energy type vary across four global regions.

Energy SourceAsia-PacificEuropeLatin America
and the Caribbean
North America
Hydroelectric65%60%67%61%
Natural gas38%33%17%44%
Coal65%2%0%28%
Wind23%7%0%22%
Oil12%7%33%22%
Nuclear12%7%0%22%
Solar12%13%17%17%
Geothermal8%0%0%6%

Source: University of Cambridge
Editor’s note: Numbers in each column are not meant to add to 100%

Hydroelectric energy is the most common source globally, and it gets used by at least 60% of cryptominers across all four regions. Other types of clean energy such as wind and solar appear to be less popular.

Coal energy plays a significant role in the Asia-Pacific region, and was the only source to match hydroelectricity in terms of usage. This can be largely attributed to China, which is currently the world’s largest consumer of coal.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge noted that they weren’t surprised by these findings, as the Chinese government’s strategy to ensure energy self-sufficiency has led to an oversupply of both hydroelectric and coal power plants.

Towards a Greener Crypto Future

As cryptocurrencies move further into the mainstream, it’s likely that governments and other regulators will turn their attention to the industry’s carbon footprint. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however.

Mike Colyer, CEO of Foundry, a blockchain financing provider, believes that cryptomining can support the global transition to renewable energy. More specifically, he believes that clustering cryptomining facilities near renewable energy projects can mitigate a common issue: an oversupply of electricity.

“It allows for a faster payback on solar projects or wind projects… because they would [otherwise] produce too much energy for the grid in that area”
– Mike Colyer, CEO, Foundry

This type of thinking appears to be taking hold in China as well. In April 2020, Ya’an, a city located in China’s Sichuan province, issued a public guidance encouraging blockchain firms to take advantage of its excess hydroelectricity.

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UN Sustainable Development Goals: How Companies Stack Up

Are companies making progress in meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals? This tracker shows how companies are measuring up.

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Sustainable Development Goals

The UN SDGs: How Companies Stack Up

Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing witnessed a breakthrough year in 2020 with the most fund inflows on record.

Importantly, for companies that are judged according to ESG metrics, one way to track their progress is through their alignment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Established in 2012, the UN SDGs are a blueprint for creating a more sustainable future by 2030 that have been adopted by 193 countries worldwide.

As investors and stakeholders pay closer attention to sustainability concerns, this graphic from MSCI breaks down how companies stack up according to their alignment to the UN SDGs.

How Were Companies Measured?

To track companies net contribution to the UN SDGs, companies were scored by their positive or negative contribution to each of the 17 goals.

The 17 UN SDGs are designed to achieve three primary objectives by 2030:

  • Protect the planet
  • End poverty
  • Create prosperity and peace for all

Specifically, the framework centers on a discussion paper that was developed in partnership with the OECD in 2018. Company policies, operations, products and services, and practices are analyzed according to reported and publicly available information.

Tracking the Alignment of Companies

Across a universe of 8,550 companies in the MSCI All Country World Index, constituents were measured from strongly aligned to strongly misaligned to the UN SDGs.

Sustainable
Development Goal
Strongly
Aligned
AlignedMisalignedStrongly
Misaligned
1No Poverty089215532
2Zero Hunger24234300
3Good Health and Well-being031514129
4Quality Education831520
5Gender Equality0109290
6Clean Water and Sanitation173253610
7Affordable and Clean Energy43639109587
8Decent Work and Economic Growth2512695217
9Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure688441379
10Reduced Inequality082812731
11Sustainable Cities and Communities0016719
12Responsible Consumption and Production115855150598
13Climate Action2759495587
14Life Below Water03615192
15Life on Land0012817
16Peace and Justice Strong Institutions013524127
17Partnerships to Achieve the Goal040115222

Source: MSCI ESG Research LLC as of August 11, 2020

Broadly speaking, companies fell mostly in the middle—roughly 38% were aligned while almost 55% were misaligned or neutral. Meanwhile, just 0.2% of companies were strongly aligned to the UN SDGs.

Overall, one of the most strongly aligned goals was Responsible Production and Consumption, with 115 companies meeting this criteria. Specifically, these include companies that are building sustainable infrastructure, energy efficiency, or creating green jobs.

Interestingly, the worst performing goal was also Responsible Production and Consumption, with over five times as many companies (598) strongly misaligned. Along with this goal, both Climate Action and Affordable and Clean Energy each had over 500 companies strongly misaligned.

UN SDGs: A Sector Focus

Unsurprisingly, SDG-alignment varied widely according to company sectors.

Educational companies, for instance, represented the highest level of alignment to Gender Equality. Meanwhile, 18% of 425 utilities companies assessed ended up aligning with Clean and Affordable Energy goals.

As one would expect, the energy sector lagged behind. In 2020, fossil fuels were a key source of revenue for 91% of the companies in the energy business. In fact, just three companies derived over 50% of their revenues from green alternatives: REX American Resources, Renewable Energy Group, and Verbio.

A Call to Action?

Despite the growing wave of interest in ESG investing, the reality is that progress to meet the UN SDGs has been slower going than expected.

However, a greater number of individuals, stakeholders, and activists are sounding the alarm. Today, over 3,000 signatories representing trillions in assets under management have committed to the UN Principles of Responsible Investment, which has established six key actions for ESG investing. Now, many companies are required to report their ESG disclosures in Europe.

Along with these key markers of progress, investors can move the dial by tracking a company’s alignment to sustainable development goals.

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